To this point, then, my relationship with visual art has been fraught, to say the least. I’d like to think I’m a decent reader with a fair set of interpretive standards. I can’t seem to bring them to bear on the visual art world, however. I’ve got a very weak standard for visual art: Do I like it? For every artwork that I can get my word-addled noggin around, there’s a dozen that completely flummox me. A deceptively simple “What does it mean?” can render me completely nonplussed. The Rembrandts and Van Goghs can already stump me; by the time the abstract modernists come along and start seemingly just flinging paint at canvases, I’m hopelessly lost. Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions.
Critics haven’t been much help to me, either. Modern art criticism has fallen on the same tendency that so bedevils modern literary criticism: impenetrability. Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word tried its level best to provide some sunlight-as-disinfectant in 1975 with a more simplistic analysis of modern art and its critics, but left me with little to go on as far as how to understand works of art. The Painted Word was, however, a master class in crankiness, and for that I am grateful.
Flannery herself might help; we do have a reproduction of her self-portrait hanging on the wall in the front parlor, after all. Between the paintings and her cartoonist gig for the Georgia State College for Women newspaper, I suspect she’d be a good sounding board if nothing else. Unfortunately, Mystery & Manners contains only literary (and avian, if you like) criticism.
Thus, I approach our first guests to Andalusia’s February Four lecture series with a little hope in mind. Flannery’s Farrar, Strauss & Giroux paperback covers by June Glasson and Charlotte Strick have proved a striking and welcome change, and I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing how these ladies can merge the “What does it mean?” of narrative and visual arts. I’m hoping that getting inside a creative process for these artworks will give me a little help in understanding other ones. When pressed again, I want to have something a little more substantial to say than “Isn’t that nice!”
Daniel Wilkinson teaches English (fortunately for his students) at Georgia College and is a Visitor Services Assistant and Bon Vivant at Andalusia.